Finally — Some Hope for People With ALS
A promising trial using stem cells may become the first successful treatment for the devastating disease that killed Lou Gehrig.
By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
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ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) is one of the most devastating diseases known to man. It steadily destroys nerve cells in the brain and the spinal column, eventually leading to paralysis and death. There is no treatment and no cure.
Awareness of the disease exploded last year thanks to a fundraising effort that went viral — the so-called “Ice Bucket Challenge.”
The great Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig died of ALS in 1941; and in all the decades since, there has been little progress in battling this disease. But new research using stem cells is now offering the first real hope for a breakthrough.
A trial at the Mayo Clinic is using stem cells that are harvested from the patient’s own body fat. They are grown in a dish then injected into the spinal fluid.
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“There are different mechanisms by which stem cells may be helpful for ALS,” says Nathan Staff, MD, PhD, a neurologist at Mayo Clinic. “The avenue that we’re pursuing is to use them as a neuro-protective agent.” He says the stem cells are known to secrete factors that help the nerve cells in the spine live longer.
The trial is still in the first phase, but Dr. Staff says the hope is that this treatment will slow or even halt the disease’s progression. That, in itself, would be a huge step forward in managing this disease, but another trial recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will go a step further. It will try using stem cells to replace neurons that have already been destroyed by ALS, not just slowing, but reversing the progress of the disease.
At that point, we might even be able to use the word cure. These studies are still in the early stages, but it is a long-awaited ray of hope for people living with this devastating disease.
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